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Why Misty Copeland should be American Ballet Theatre’s new director

The acclaimed ballet company can make history and inspire audiences by naming a woman of color as its leader

American Ballet Theatre dancer Misty Copeland and Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie at a panel discussion in Pasadena, Calif., in January 2015. (Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

American Ballet Theatre’s search for a new artistic director comes at a complicated time, when ballet is facing tough questions. How necessary is the art form to the contemporary moment? Can it draw audiences and funders back in force? Where are the younger, next-generation fans?

Then there’s the exclusivity problem in ballet. Small, spotty gains in diversity, gender equity and inclusion have been made among dancers and choreographers, but not nearly enough. And progress is slower among company directors, who are overwhelmingly White and male. (Janet Rollé, formerly the general manager of Beyoncé's Parkwood Entertainment, became ABT’s first Black executive director in January.)

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Difficult questions, yet an easy answer. ABT — one of the greatest ballet companies in the nation and the world, and an important American cultural export — ought to replace outgoing artistic director Kevin McKenzie with Misty Copeland.

McKenzie is retiring at the end of this year after 30 years at the helm. Copeland, the world-famous ballerina, social activist and icon to young people around the world, made history in 2015 by becoming ABT’s first Black female principal dancer. She could make history again by becoming its first Black artistic director. (She would also build on ABT’s female-led beginnings under dancer Lucia Chase, who helped found the company in 1940, when it was known as Ballet Theater. In 1945, Chase became co-director with stage designer Oliver Smith; they held those posts until 1980.)

The time is right. There is a powerful echo in the U.S. Senate’s confirmation last week of Ketanji Brown Jackson as the first Black female Supreme Court justice, and the resonance deepens when you consider that at the high court, like at ABT, diversity has gradually taken hold but Black women have been the last to gain prominence.

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According to ABT spokeswoman Laura Miller, the search for an artistic director is ongoing and no timeline has been set for announcing McKenzie’s successor. But with ABT’s recent Kennedy Center engagement fresh in my mind, I’m struck by what the company could accomplish with a leadership choice that looks to the future of ballet. A choice that makes a strong statement about representation and progress, and acknowledges a new generation of artists — and potential audience members — who have no patience for rigid, old-school thinking in casting, repertoire, creative opportunities or simply in the way dancers are treated in the studio.

Having lived through #MeToo, the Black Lives Matter movement and pandemic-related shutdowns that left them to train and develop their art largely on their own, young dancers are newly self-empowered. As I’ve heard in countless interviews in recent years, dancers are no longer willing to be voiceless followers in the studio. They view authority differently than their elders, who grew up at a time of reverence for the teachers, choreographers, repertory directors and repetiteurs (once referred to as “ballet masters,” a term that has fallen out of favor) who made career decisions for them. Young dancers are demanding more agency, and inclusivity surrounding race, gender and ethnicity. Many wield a degree of social media influence that cannot be ignored. ABT’s new artistic director must be sensitive to this, and skilled in truly respecting individual rights within communal goals.

Copeland has lived this in her rise to the top of a profession where Black women have scarcely existed. Her appeal as a sympathetic groundbreaker is what drives audiences to roar at her entrance onstage, before she’s even danced a step. It’s what continues to inspire new audiences and artists, and what ABT would be smart to leverage further.

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She has become a global ambassador for ballet, introducing new audiences to it through her performances, training workshops and activism with organizations such as MindLeaps, which uses dance classes to improve school performance of children in developing countries.

Yet as ABT’s director, Copeland would also have the capacity to materially enrich her art. It’s fair to say no ballet dancer can match her celebrity and glamour, which bodes well for the essential task any artistic director faces: fundraising. It’s a major thrust for ABT, which has 84 dancers and an operating budget of $42 million. Copeland possesses matchless sizzle factor, a significant plus as ABT seeks to catch the public eye again after the years it lost to the pandemic.

Lest her inexperience running a company stand against her, it bears remembering that few of ABT’s past directors — and hardly any directors of most ballet companies — came to the job as expert leaders. After retiring as a dancer, McKenzie had only a year’s apprenticeship at the Washington Ballet as “artistic associate” to then-director Mary Day before ABT gave him the top post in 1992. Russian ballet star Mikhail Baryshnikov had no experience running a troupe before serving as ABT’s director from 1980 to 1989. Star appeal, fundraising ability, a vision for the future and wide contacts throughout the dance world routinely rate in director appointments.

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It’s easy to imagine that the top job at ABT is Copeland’s if she wants it. But does she? She’s expecting her first child soon, and her pregnancy is handsomely featured in her recent video ad for the luxury watch brand Breitling. The video also drops a hint. There’s no glitzy lifestyle depicted here. Instead, Copeland is busily at work behind the scenes: warming up, overseeing a rehearsal, coaching individual dancers and comfortably navigating the backstage with a proprietary air. In other words, she looks like a director.

“I showed them what I could become,” she says in the ad. “Principal dancer, author, mentor, mother.” It’s an excellent list, but with the cultural status and fame she has earned through her art, Copeland has a unique opportunity to do more.

Taking charge of ABT is the best way for her to put her beliefs and ideals into enduring form, for the good of the entire art form. One could certainly make the case for refreshing certain works in a thoughtful realignment with 21st-century values. For example, such 19th-century classics as “Raymonda,” “Le Corsaire” and “The Nutcracker” contain problematic characters: seductive enslaved men and women, leering Muslims, stereotyped Asians, and other extraordinarily outdated and derogatory portrayals. Dramaturgical tweaks and slight, smart alterations to the storylines and choreography could remedy a host of inherited ills.

But perhaps Copeland isn’t interested. ABT should also consider Stella Abrera, the former ABT principal dancer who is now artistic director of Kaatsbaan Cultural Park, in Tivoli, N.Y., in the Hudson Valley countryside. In fact, on the same day in 2015 that Copeland became ABT’s first African American female principal, Abrera became its first Filipina American principal.

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In a 24-year career at ABT, Abrera was a dancer of exceptional classical purity and refinement. She worked closely with Alexei Ratmansky, ABT’s celebrated resident choreographer, and she continues to teach his works to other companies. As a director, in addition to teaching and coaching students of the summer intensives and curating performances, she has worked to broaden what ballet can be.

Kaatsbaan hired her in 2020, and she put together her first summer festival at the height of the pandemic (held safely outdoors). She made a definitive statement right off the bat, with an opening series that honored Black dancers and choreographers. In a move that, according to dancers I’ve spoken with, is typical of her generosity, Abrera gave ABT’s Calvin Royal III the chance to choreograph a couple of works, in a program that also included tap dancer Leonardo Sandoval and bass player Gregory Richardson.

These two women are everything ABT should be looking for — to introduce ballet to a new generation, to inject it with fresh excitement and dynamism, and to make it responsive to this moment while also looking to the future.